It was one of those Hong Kong days when the heat garrotes the spirit, and any thought is labor. I remember him running, weaving, and I recall thinking at the time how no American-sized halfback could have beat him at what he was doing. And then I see him down in front of the ricksha, his straw hat lying upside down and wobbling, and the tourist cameras clicking like thousands of nervous chattering teeth. And I wondered in what picture folder would the death of this ricksha puller go—one labeled "local color," perhaps?
This is an article from the March 8, 1976 issue
My only acquaintance with rickshas had been through films where more than once James Cagney was being bounced toward danger and a supreme act of patriotism. Sometimes it was Sidney Greenstreet, and there was no question as to his destination: the nearest hole in the law. A word of flawless Chinese, and the ricksha was off, moving like a crochet needle through the traffic. Aside from the obvious social comment of the blessed and the unblessed, there was the raw physics of the scene; how could such a spare man transport a mountain of pampered flesh so swiftly? The scene has also cost me money at the track, for from it—recurring like an itch in the center of the back—came this puzzle: If Sidney could be carried in a ricksha by a man who looked as if he had rickets, why can't 1,000 pounds of well-fed horse carry a bit of high weight? The question never seemed to go away, until I now brusquely conclude that there is no mammal in the world whose stamina is equal to that of a ricksha puller.
It takes a certain suspension of reality to ride in a ricksha, and I could not do it for a long time. First, there is a persistent self-consciousness that seems to preclude any fun, a twinge of missionary shock at the poor soul in front of you being so ill used.
In Hong Kong this scene was a common-place: a tourist, sweating heavily, his collar open, pulling his wife, shaded by a big hat. Sometimes the tourists would pull the Chinese pullers, and always there were those little cameras—like black bugs—catching it all for those long nights back home at the American Legion Hall. Eventually I would climb into a ricksha—for the first and last time.
Like a long-forgotten smell, or the flash of a picture (a hand, a face, a frozen bird in a winter field, anything that recalls pain or joy), that moment in Hong Kong returned again. Just back from that city, a friend reported that the life of the ricksha is near its end; to the educated Chinese, to civic leaders it has become offensive. It disfigures Hong Kong's reputation as one of the most Westernized cities in the Far East. There are only 20 licensed rickshas, another 30 or so that are not licensed, and no new licenses will be issued. Were it not for an economic slump, a shortage of factory jobs (as Western as you can get right now), no ricksha would be seen on the streets.
The friend continued, but my mind was back in time, to a face, a second. I had finally decided to take a ride in a ricksha, and here I was stepping up to the seat. I told the puller merely to go, and even as I said it, I thought how stupidly frivolous it was; I allowed that I would get out in a few blocks. The puller never looked back; his head instantly began moving through the thick growth of people and cars. The day was hot, the smells were foreign yet as clear as the ring of cymbals, and my eyes stayed on the lower part of his body as he never broke his short, choppy stride. His agility and endurance held the eye.
Then, as quick as the snap of a dry twig, the shafts hit the ground, he turned toward me...and then he went down. He lay there, his eyes oblivious to the awful glare of the sky, and then he was gone as all of Hong Kong seemed to hover over him. Days later I began talking to a puller near the ferry docks, which was sort of a cabstand for rickshas. I asked him if he knew the man who had died. He said he had known him long, that his name was Lai Kai and that he was nearly 80 years old. He said that Lai Kai was a good, honest man, and he would be missed. The old puller, he said, had dragged that ricksha for 40 years, covering more than 14,000 miles, none of which, I knew, was in a straight line. Pointing to a junk far out in the water, he said the old man once could do a similar distance in 11 minutes. I took the junk to be a mile away, and inwardly laughed. Looking at me, sensing doubt, he insisted, nodding, "Yes, yes."
Pausing for some response, he continued: "Very strong, Lai Kai. Very fast." He went on to say how the pullers, when not busy, would race, and that Lai Kai had been unbeatable until he became too old. He then indicated a ricksha standing in the sun. It belonged to Lai, the puller said, adding, while shaking his head, "Too old, Lai Kai. No want to beg." Being young then, I quickly forgot the incident. It is only lately that it returns with clarity, when a horse like Forego cannot carry a feathery 134 pounds. And then I see a choppy stride, can almost feel a frozen moment in which all the details are perfect: the falling shafts, the turn of Lai, the end of the greatest handicap runner in the world; like the puller who knew him, I, too, insist that he was.